Writers, actors give voice to art in 'Statue Stories Chicago'

 
By Amanda Svachula
asvachula@dailyherald.com
Updated 8/17/2015 10:08 AM
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  • Award-winning author Blue Balliet, who wrote the Helping Hands monologue for "Statue Stories Chicago," poses with the statue in Chicago's Women's Park.

    Award-winning author Blue Balliet, who wrote the Helping Hands monologue for "Statue Stories Chicago," poses with the statue in Chicago's Women's Park. Courtesy of Robert Knapp

  • Want to chat with "Cloud Gate," better known as "The Bean"? You can as part of "Statue Stories Chicago." David Catlin, a Lookingglass Theatre Company co-founder and ensemble member, wrote the words voiced by "Friends" star and fellow Lookingglass founder David Schwimmer.

    Want to chat with "Cloud Gate," better known as "The Bean"? You can as part of "Statue Stories Chicago." David Catlin, a Lookingglass Theatre Company co-founder and ensemble member, wrote the words voiced by "Friends" star and fellow Lookingglass founder David Schwimmer.

  • Lookingglass Theatre ensemble member Anthony Flemming III, who formerly live in Downers Grove, provides the voice of the city's Cowardly Lion statue in Oz Park for "Statue Stories Chicago."

    Lookingglass Theatre ensemble member Anthony Flemming III, who formerly live in Downers Grove, provides the voice of the city's Cowardly Lion statue in Oz Park for "Statue Stories Chicago."

  • Bill Kurtis will be voicing the statue of Montgomery Ward in Grant Park.

    Bill Kurtis will be voicing the statue of Montgomery Ward in Grant Park.

  • A statue of Nathan Hale will "speak" through "Elementary" star and Waukegan native Jon Michael Hill.

    A statue of Nathan Hale will "speak" through "Elementary" star and Waukegan native Jon Michael Hill.

  • Statues will "chat" with locals and tourists alike as part of a public art initiative entitled "Statue Stories Chicago."

    Statues will "chat" with locals and tourists alike as part of a public art initiative entitled "Statue Stories Chicago."

  • Award-winning author Blue Balliet works on the monologue for the "Helping Hands" statue in Chicago's Women's Park as a part of "Statue Stories Chicago."

    Award-winning author Blue Balliet works on the monologue for the "Helping Hands" statue in Chicago's Women's Park as a part of "Statue Stories Chicago."

  • If the statue of Nicolaus Copernicus near the Adler Planetarium sounds a lot like Leonard from "The Big Bang Theory," that's no coincidence. Actor Johnny Galecki, who grew up in Oak Park, provided his voice for "Statue Stories Chicago."

    If the statue of Nicolaus Copernicus near the Adler Planetarium sounds a lot like Leonard from "The Big Bang Theory," that's no coincidence. Actor Johnny Galecki, who grew up in Oak Park, provided his voice for "Statue Stories Chicago."

  • If the statue of Nicolaus Copernicus near the Adler Planetarium sounds a lot like Leonard from "The Big Bang Theory," that's no coincidence. Actor Johnny Galecki, who grew up in Oak Park, provided his voice for "Statue Stories Chicago."

    If the statue of Nicolaus Copernicus near the Adler Planetarium sounds a lot like Leonard from "The Big Bang Theory," that's no coincidence. Actor Johnny Galecki, who grew up in Oak Park, provided his voice for "Statue Stories Chicago."

Sculpted granite hands at Chicago Women's Park, honoring Jane Addams, awaken with a tap of a smartphone.

"Welcome to this garden of hands!" Steppenwolf ensemble member Amy Morton says, launching into a monologue written by children's author Blue Balliett.

"Helping Hands" is one of 31 sculptures that will talk to visitors via their cellphones over the next year as part of "Statue Stories Chicago," an initiative sponsored by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation to highlight the city's public art.

Colette Hiller of Sing London, the organization producing the project, brought the idea to Chicago after founding last year's "Talking Statues London."

"Chicago has a history of being America's leading city for pioneering public art," Hiller said. "There are statues and monuments all around, and we often pass them by without notice."

The statues -- and those speaking for them -- are as diverse as the city itself.

Voices include a number of well-known stars with ties to the city, including John C. Reilly and Bob Balaban, and a host more with links to the suburbs. "The Big Bang Theory" star Johnny Galecki grew up in Oak Park, "New Girl" star Lamorne Morris attended Glenbard South High School, "Elementary" actor Jon Michael Hill is a Waukegan native and stage actor Anthony Fleming III hails from Downers Grove.

Shonda Rhimes speaks for Chicago's Miro, actor Steve Carell gives a voice to the "Man With Fish," and actor Bob Newhart -- appropriately -- speaks for a statue of himself near Navy Pier.

To hear what each statue has to say, visitors scan the QR code on a labeled area nearby, use their phone's NFC function or input a given URL. Then, the statue will "call" and talk to the listener.

Among the "talking" city statues are Abraham Lincoln, the Picasso, Leif Ericson and the Greek goddess Hebe. Figures of stone will rouse in Humboldt Park, Lincoln Park, Grant Park and additional areas across the city.

"Statue Stories Chicago" aims to use technology to connect people to art.

"The idea is that by giving these statues an inner voice, this technology can be used effectively," Hiller said. "The statue is now 'calling' you."

When visitors receive a call from a figure such as Jane Addams through the "Helping Hands" statue, they learn the historical context. What might have appeared dated is reactivated through modern technology.

"It's so whimsical, inviting and fun," Balliett said. "I think that Jane Addams would have loved this because her life was about hands touching hands and making dreams come true."

Even lesser-known and abstract statues are given a voice. By promoting these works and landmarks, the project aims to create awareness of Chicago's rich culture.

"The statue of Nicolaus Copernicus (in front of the Adler Planetarium) tells the story of the Polish community," Hiller said. "Some statues tell stories you know, but also those that deserve to be known. Collectively, it's the art that makes up the architecture and the city's landscape that tells the story of the entire city."

Monologues for each statue were commissioned with the help of the Goodman Theatre, Lookingglass Theatre, The Second City and Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Participating writers included local mystery authors Scott Turow and Sara Paretsky.

David Catlin, a founding ensemble member of Lookingglass, along with David Schwimmer, best known as Ross in the TV show "Friends," created the monologue to animate Chicago's Cloud Gate structure. They utilized themes of identity and alternate worlds from Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland."

"One of the things we were struck by initially was this idea that it's called 'Cloud Gate,' but most people call it 'The Bean,'" Catlin said. "In a way there's a built-in identity crisis. Also, Cloud Gate is this giant mirror. which is a source of one way we view our own identities."

Different Chicago organizations will offer walking tours of the talking statues throughout the year. The project is slated to continue in other cities such as New York City and Washington, D.C., in the future.

"I think the idea is brilliant," Catlin said. "It's a really wonderful opportunity for people to re-engage with the extraordinary art that our city has and to develop some empathy for different perspectives."

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